My First Road Gig and What Not to Do on a Tour Bus
It was a hot summer night in July of 2003, and I was hanging out at the Fiddle and Steel, when my good friend, Dave McAfee, told me that there was a job opening up on the Toby Keith tour. The position was for that of guitar tech, and Dave, who had been with Toby since the early days, felt that he could make it happen if I was interested.
“I know you came here to work as a player, but I think you could gain some good experience working on this tour for a while.” he said. I had been in Nashville for a year and, despite having built up some steady in-town gigs, was ready to take this next step. “I could definitely use the experience of working on a major tour, not to mention some real income, but I don’t have any experience working as a tech.” I responded. “Don’t worry about that, the job is mainly restringing and tuning guitars, and taking care of backline. They’ll teach you everything you need to know.” He said. “Okay, count me in! When do we leave?”
The next step was a brief phone call the following day with Toby’s tour manager, Sean Sargent. Based solely on my commitment to work hard and my obvious hunger for the position, and of course the good word Dave had already put in for me, I was hired. I was now about to officially become a “road dog”. I had no idea whatsoever what I was in for.
To give a little perspective here, prior to landing this gig with Toby, the most extensive touring I had done was a couple weekend outings with Vern Gosdin and BB Watson, basically one-offs within 500 miles of Nashville with 8 to 10 people traveling on one bus, our backline stowed in bays underneath. The Toby tour that year, dubbed the title “Shock’n Y’all”, touted an entourage of 50 plus band and crew members, traveling by six buses, and carrying full production in six semis.
My virgin outing with this mega tour was a doozy of a trip. We were scheduled to play in Cheyenne, Wyoming on Saturday, July 19; Harrington, Delaware on Monday, July 21, and then returning to Nashville for a few days before departing for Toronto, Ontario. This is what is known in the touring industry as “deadheading”, or in the country music industry as the “dartboard tour”, meaning that some of these runs seemed so illogical that you might as well throw darts at a map on the wall to determine the routing.
Here’s what my first five weeks of working on this tour looked like:
07/19/03 Cheyenne, WY Frontier Days
07/21/03 Harrington, DE Delaware State Fair
07/23/03 Paso Robles, CA California Mid-State Fair (fly date)
07/25/03 Toronto, ON To Be Announced
07/26/03 Ottawa, ON Corel Centre
08/01/03 Maryland Heights, MO UMB Bank Pavilion
08/02/03 Tinley Park, IL Tweeter Center
08/03/03 Bonner Springs, KS Verizon Wireless Amphitheater
08/07/03 Pelham, AL Oak Mountain Amph.
08/08/03 Charlotte, NC Verizon Wireless Amp. Charlotte
08/09/03 Raleigh, NC Alltel Pavilion @ Walnut Creek
08/14/03 Corpus Christi, TX Concrete Street Amphitheatre
08/16/03 Selma, TX Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre
08/19/03 Meadville, PA Crawford County Fair
08/22/03 Albuquerque, NM Journal Pavilion
08/23/03 Phoenix, AZ Cricket Pavilion
08/24/03 Los Angeles, CA Staples Center
08/28/03 San Diego, CA Coors Ampitheatre
08/29/03 Las Vegas, NV MGM Grand
08/30/03 Mountain View, CA Shoreline Amphitheatre
08/31/03 Kelseyville, CA Konocti Harbor Resort & Spa
I quickly learned that I was going to be gone a lot and living on the road with my new “family”. Realizing that my in town gigging was about to grind to a halt, I decided to buy a “zoom” style guitar unit so I could practice my guitar via headphones on the bus to keep my chops up. I also had a laptop, a video camera, headset for my cell phone; I was totally geaked out and ready to “embrace the road”.
With good intentions, but totally green behind the ears, I said goodbye to my wife, Kelly, and set out for the bus at 7:00 AM on a Friday morning. Still not completely familiar with Nashville, I got lost on the way to the bus and called my wife in a panic for a little help with MapQuest. She set me straight and I arrived to a Kroger parking lot in Hermitage at about 7:30. There were several buses parked together and, not knowing a soul other than Dave, I introduced myself to the first person I saw and told him I was looking for the “audio crew bus”. “That’s the bus I’m on too, the blue one right over there. You must be Eric? I’m Marty.” he said. “The bottom front passenger’s side bunk is available, or you could take one of the top two junk bunks.” “Junk bunks?” I asked. “Those are the empty bunks that we can use for luggage.” he answered, my greenness showing already.
Nashville to Cheyenne, Wyoming is 1200 miles, or about a 22 hour bus ride with a few stops. Wyoming to Delaware was another 1800 miles, or close to 40 hours with stops. So while I was loading my luggage, laptop, box of food, guitar, and briefcase full of practice equipment, the other guys were all making a food run into the nearby supermarket to stock up. It was at this moment that I committed my first bus foul (albeit unknowingly), and took a big ole’ dump in the bus bathroom. The few bus trips I had previously made with BB and Vern were so short, that as chance would have it, I never had to use the bathroom, and no one on those runs had informed me of the “no poop” rule enforced on most of these buses. The reason for this rule (as I would later learn) is that anything other than peeing on a bus requires a much higher level of daily water and septic maintenance, so most tours instill this rule to save time, money, and to prevent the interiors of the buses from smelling like a sewer hole.
A few minutes later the rest of the crew returned and we set out for Cheyenne. A little while later “Pork Chop”, one of the audio guys, used the bathroom, and when he reentered the front lounge exclaimed “Did somebody shit in there?” I instantly felt a sinking feeling in my stomach but instinctively chose to just sit there and say nothing, staring straight ahead, kind of like the scene in “A Christmas Story” in which Ralphie and his cohorts play dumb when Flick gets his tongue stuck to the frozen flagpole. As I was just making the acquaintance of these folks and trying to make a good impression, I didn’t want to admit to being so utterly clueless. I’m pretty sure that they suspected it was me anyway.
Most of these buses have a small table in the front lounge, with a small bench seat on either side, basically enough room to seat two people somewhat comfortably. A little later in the day I decided to practice some guitar, and brought my stuff out to the front lounge. I sat down at the table and proceeded to take over the small space, spreading out my electronic gadgetry, music books, and guitar gear. For an hour so, I sat there playing guitar with headphones on, finding it somewhat difficult to do this in such a confined space. If I had ever bothered to look up, I’m sure I would’ve received some annoying looks from some of the other crew members, all of whom were veterans of the road.
After a while, I got up and went to go sit in the co-pilot seat next to the driver for a few, and this would be when I committed my second bus etiquette offence. Not yet realizing that seating and table space are considered prime real estate on a bus, I left my guitar and gadgetry strewn all over the table and seat. So when I returned a little while later, I was confused to see the table cleared and my stuff nowhere in sight. Apparently, somebody had moved it all to my bunk.
“I wasn’t done practicing yet.” I stated to a front lounge full of glaring eyes. “Yeah you are, you left that stuff there for an hour.” “Oh, I didn’t know you can’t leave stuff out in the lounge.” I said apologetically, beginning to feel like a real dork. “Oops. Sorry guys.”
This is not how I wanted my introduction to the Toby Tour to begin, but it was too late, like they say, there’s no such thing as a second first impression. In time, I would get the hang of how to live with others on a bus, the importance of not taking up too much space, and the communal approach one must take to live on a tour. But at this moment we were only a few hours into a trip that would span 4000 miles over five days, and my new comrades weren’t exactly taking a quick liking to me. Not to mention the interior of the bus was now starting to smell kind of foul from my first debacle.
It was going to be a long ride.